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Research sheds light on how bacteria communicate their way to causing infection

Oregon State University scientists have identified proteins that prevent a bacterial cell from becoming misguided by its own messaging, allowing it to instead wait for collective communication from its group.

The research is important because understanding this type of signaling, known as quorum sensing and integral to bacterial pathogens, opens the door to potential new drugs that can disrupt it and thwart infection.

Findings were published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Martin Schuster, a professor in OSU’s Department of Microbiology in the colleges of Science and Agricultural Sciences, and doctoral student Parker Smith study quorum sensing in the pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a gram-negative bacterium that displays a variety of social behaviors.

P. aeruginosa, a common cause of lung and wound infections among hospital patients and people with weakened immune systems, is a model organism for quorum sensing research with a well understood signaling circuit, the scientists said.

“Sometimes single-celled organisms need to work together with other cells,” Schuster said. “Bacteria and other single-celled microbes can coordinate behaviors and act as a group via quorum sensing, in which cells produce and sense a small chemical signal that is shared within the population.”

As the signal is released from cells and reaches a high enough concentration in their environment, a quorum is achieved — certain genes are simultaneously activated and specific group behaviors are set in motion, Smith said.

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